AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
CANNES – 2014
SUNSHINE AND FIREWORKS
by Harlan Kennedy
The sun shone for the annual war games on the Riviera. Has anyone in history found a better way for nation to battle nation than the Cannes festival? Instead of soldier-fighters we get films and filmmakers. Instead of bombs we get firework displays. This year’s fireworks, exploding over the Med in flowers of red, gold, green, blue was the best in years. And instead of real tanks crunching the Croisette we get – or got on the first Sunday – two armoured panzers carrying a Hollywood all-star army. Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford, Antonio Banderas, Jason Statham…..Debouching at the Carlton Hotel, this was a full-dress fol-de-rol for the forthcoming EXPENDABLES 3. When publicity stunts go big at Cannes, they go big.
Sometimes, though, glitzy intentions groom the path to Hell; an unforgettable festival begins with a movie we all try to forget. The Cannes opener was GRACE OF MONACO.
I knew Grace Kelly. Grace Kelly was a friend of mine. And Nicole Kidman – I love her to bits in the right role – is no Grace Kelly. The Australo-Tinseltown diva looks the look, walks the walk, sometimes even talks the talk – Kelly’s cut-glass elocution with a spritz of Philadelphia Irish. But the potty plot asks us to believe that the beautiful ex-actress turned Monte Carlo first lady sublimated her grief at Prince Rainer’s (Tim Roth) veto of a screen return, in Hitchcock’s Marnie, by a host of daft vanities and vainglories, including saving Monaco from annexation by France and De Gaulle.
Blockade! Threats! Sentry posts! Imminent war! Luckily Grace, coached in queenly command by Derek Jacobi as a trilling protocol tutor (“I am the Count d’Alliere”), learns how to use charm and majesty to move the De Gaulle posts and return Europe to the even playing field of ancestral history.
It’s a far cry from the other biopic that helped to kick off Cannes 2014. Timothy Spall ‘is’ MR TURNER, or as close as dammit. The painter’s full-cheeked rotundity of feature, blowfish lips and reported-by-contemporaries rough manners – check, check and check – are accessorised with the cockney accent he also probably had. Humbly born, JMW Turner rose to be British painting’s fiery Phoebus. Also, the world’s unique missing link between classicism and impressionism. After you, Claude (Lorrain). But before you, Claude (Monet).
Thank heaven Mike Leigh, not Olivier GRACE OF MONACO Dahan, got to him. This 19th century England feels real, even feels like a differently dressed now. The cracklingly conversational ‘period’ dialogue; the vividly tattered relationships (ex-lover, bastard children); the rough-and-tumble sex. Turner may have been a Romantic in art. He was no romantic, says everything and everyone we know, in romance.
Meanwhile – a penance in bad biopics but a pleasure in good ones – it’s rush hour for the renowned. Meet John Constable. Meet John Ruskin. Meet Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. They all seem like anybody else and, simultaneously, like nobody but themselves. The movie’s moods are quicksilver and quotidian, sometimes stretching to the quixotic. Did Turner really have himself tied to a ship’s mast, like Ulysses, to experience his siren songs, those of a painter seeking the transcendent? The mighty chorusing of rain, wind, wave, surf, tempest. (Short, researched answer: yes, he did).
The cinematography captures the Turner colours while never falling prey to preciosity. The performances, from Timothy Spall’s rich and racking panache to costumed turns unfaltering in freshness from Mike Leigh regulars. There was never even in his cinema such a gallery of high-performing females: Ruth Sheen, Lesley Manville, Marion Bailey as the Margate landlady who becomes Turner’s mistress. Best of all, combining poignard-sharp features with poignancies of feeling, is Dorothy Atkinson as Hannah Danby: the loyal servant-drudge who also served – when Turner’s animal impulses took him – as his happy victim in brusque love bouts.
As soon as MR TURNER ended – the first film in the official Competition – the Palme d’Or program set about its business of touring the world. Abderrahmane Sissako’s TIMBUKTU, made by a Mauritian director in Mali, is a powerful set of interlinked stories. An African community is invaded by Taliban-style terrorists. Sharia law sweeps down on simple people from a clear heaven or cloudless hell. Each group of characters is given equal weight: the implacable certitude of the fanatics’ leader, vainly debated by the kindly local priest; the young girl coerced into marriage with an elder; the adulterous couple condemned to death by stoning
If there is one story dominating others, it is that set in the surrounding landscape. A desert-dwelling farmer kills a fisherman who has shot one of the farmer’s straying cattle. Surrendering to the cops, he finds himself in a twilight world between the new and old justices: allowed to plead his cause but savagely sentenced when the law decides ‘enough’. The punishment spreads to his innocent family. In this world righteousness is a disease, contagious and killing. The film never raises its voice, which gives its after-echo a greater, deeper, eerier resonance
Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s WINTER SLEEP is more mastery from the maker of ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA. The phrase “Turkish cinema” once had the same vibe and cachet as “Welsh cuisine,” “Canadian wit” or “Arctic vacation homes.” Yet NBC (no relation to the broadcaster) may currently be the most watchable and worthwhile filmmaker in Eastern Europe/Western Asia.
Here is another vast canvas – three and a quarter hours – on which are daubed the dreams, nightmares and tortured hearts of a few bare characters. The ex-actor Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) who manages a picturesque hotel in the cave-house community of Cappadocia – and manages, as landlord, the lives and rents of a dozen peasants – has his soul broken open by a hostile act. A boy cracks his car window with a stone.
Like a fissuring through glass or ice, the fracture spreads through his life. It hairlines his relationship with two women: the grudge-harbouring divorced sister, who dins on like a headache about Aydin’s selfishness and vanity, and the beautiful trophy wife declining into unhappiness and charity work. Among the film’s questions: Can a planned life – on which Aydin once congratulated himself (hotel proprietorship, rent satrapy, a little local newspaper column writing, good management of the women in his life) – actually prove worse, far worse, than an unplanned one? Is the greatest inauthenticity in life the delusion of authenticity, that flattering certitude of goals reached and entering-of-houses-justified? Those incandescent consummations that sometimes glow only at the end of a blind alley?
The long conversation scenes, massive but masterly, are like uncut Chekhov or Bergman. There is a small but perfect subplot about a wild horse tamed for use by the hotel’s tourists. There is a last act that breaks out into the wintry landscape, vast-roaming like ONCE UPON A TIME IN ANATOLIA. This act catalyses and catharsises the psychic crises, so that the film – as it extinguishes its bedside light – both concludes and yet seems to continue, a wintry music vibrating on our souls.
Man cannot live on art alone.
Man cannot, however, live on art alone. All work and no play makes Jacques a dull boy. And too many subtitles bring you out in shingles. You can’t last long at Cannes without reaching for help. Which means films like Tommy Lee Jones’s THE HOMESMAN, David Cronenberg’s MAPS TO THE STARS and Bennett Miller’s spellbinding FOXCATCHER.
Non-sporting folk may not know the story behind this truth-based yarn. America’s Olympic wrestling team was trained and financed in the late 1980s by John Du Pont, billionaire scion of the chemicals giant. He was weird, but money talks. Sometimes it talks too much. Du Pont, a psychopathic mother’s boy with probable repressed gay issues, rattled on to his charges about patriotism, victory and the restoration of American glory. Meanwhile he played mind games – mind-damaging games – with his star athlete, the 1984 Gold Medallist and 1988 Seoul Olympics hopeful Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum).
This is all spellbindingly told, with a false-nosed, heavy-makeup Steve Carell in extraordinary form as the soft-spoken, barmy-as-a-bat plutocrat.
Tommy Lee Jones had an auteur honeymoon at Cannes nine years ago with THE THREE BURIALS OF MELQUIADES ESTRADA. THE HOMESMAN is another gritty, weathered character piece, though extensively gender-reassigned. The plot – like ESTRADA a journey – conscripts four women to one man. Jones’s grizzled outlaw is pressed into waggoner and bodyguard service by Hilary Swank’s do-gooding spinster, volunteering to escort three mentally crazed frontier wives back to sanity and civilisation. On the way there are Pawnee Injuns, bad weather, burgeoning romance (ill-fated), and nice drifts of muscular nihilism whenever the tale threatens to turn sentimental.
The letters ‘DOA’ have been stamped on David Cronenberg’s recent movies. A DANGEROUS METHOD, COSMOPOLIS…. dead on arrival, ex-literary corpses barely worth embalming. MAPS TO THE STARS is much better: a sparky, sardonic, dystopian tragicomedy about movie life in Los Angeles, scripted by Bruce Wagner as if he had taken TV’s ENTOURAGE and put it through a particles basher. Julianne Moore, John Cusack and Mia Wasikowska star in the tale of ego wars and male – and female (don that strap-on) – phallocratic rivalries. It’s Hollywood as Large Hardon Collider. Moore steals the show as a neurotic screen star – a gaga Garbo, a bad-news Duse – who cuts up rough, in flamboyant and watchable ways, because her career is moving towards the knackers
Sometimes amid the cacophony of the multicultural a French fishing village – ou sont les peches d’antan? – actually starts speaking French. On screen at least. France being a linguistic empire, this does not mean the films are necessarily from France. Take the Dardenne brothers’ DEUX NUITS, UN JOUR, from Belgium. (That’s go to Calais and bear right). And take Xavier Dolan’s MOMMY, from the Quebec end of Canada. (That’s fly to Baffin Island and take a ferry).
Dolan makes campy, clever, endearingly conflicted love-or-family dramas like I KILLED MY MOTHER, LAURENCE ANYWAYS and TOM AT THE FARM. And now like MOMMY. Steve, a boy with ADHD, returns from a care home to his stressed, neurotic but toujours game mum (the fantastic Anne Dorval, resembling Emma Thompson on barbiturates). They form a menage a trois, or a virtuel one, with the pretty, maladjusted female neighbour who comes to tutor Steve. Soon they are living it up like an early-Godard rat pack: threesome, hedonistic, anarchic, gabbledegook. Life is a party. At least until throwing-out, or throwing-up, time.
There are a lot of musical montage sequences, some as berserkly rapturous as pop promos. (Of which Dolan has perpetrated several). The funky plotlessness and fizzy camerawork, bizarrely using a 1:1-ratio square screen, become persuasive, even captivating. Even a sad ending doesn’t seem out of place. We have been pummelled into happy, willing submission. We like the people. We’ll share their downs as well as their ups.
From the two-time Golden Palm-winning Dardennes comes another film flirting with that dangerous cinematic commodity: simplicity. What is TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT about? It’s about 100 minutes. And it’s about to re-wow the Dardenne fanbase. How they love these quietistic yet pacy slices-of-life, bearing on relationship difficulties social, parental, civic or familial.
Marion Cotillard – after Cecile de France in THE KID ON THE BIKE another 180-degree turn by the Dardennes after their onetime pledge to use nonprofessional actors only – is plain and perfect as the factory worker threatened with redundancy. She will be fired, on her return from a sickness break for depression, unless she persuades job-mates to refuse a promised bonus. “No walkies by her,” the bosses tell the shop floor, “then no wampum for you.”
So she goes on a door-to-door odyssey, canvassing, appealing, cajoling. Since she’s already an emotional stretcher case herself, poor girl (taking antidepressants 24:7), she is doubly wrung by the anguish of soliciting others’ pity. Also by that of trying to pacify others’ fear of poverty while megaphoning her own. It’s a subtle, bitter, sad, funny, observant film.
SILS MARIA, from Olivier Assayas, is a French movie from a French filmmaker. Even so, it’s set in Switzerland. And even so, two stars are American: Kristen TWILIGHT Stewart and Chloe Grace KICK-ASS Moretz. Juliette Binoche, though, gets the role of the movie – maybe of a lifetime – as a diva forced to contemplate the ‘older’ part in a play she once performed in the character of the younger of two weird, power-playing heroines. The play’s author, a Swiss-German friend, has died. So more than they might have done, the preparations for the new staging open tunnels into the past while boring simultaneously into the future.
Tunnels? Glass-lined! Even ice-lined! The clever Assayas script is all mirrors and reflections. Binoche’s relationship with her young assistant, Stewart, duplicates the “Sigrid/Helena” relationship in the play. When they run lines with each other, walking over Swiss mountains, you can’t tell if it’s the play or they. And when Moretz moves into the story as Binoche’s unlikely stage co-star – a Hollywood moppet with a Lindsay Lohan-like rap sheet – more echoes and visual-acoustical reflections abound, this time invoking ALL ABOUT EVE. A film about age versus youth, fight versus flight, hope versus despair, it asks two questions. If life begins at 40, what was all the stuff we did before? And if life begins at 40, or re-begins, how long before the bailiffs come round again to turf us out?
Mirrors and reflections. ‘twas ever thus at Cannes. Two films, SILS MARIA and MAPS TO THE STARS, about aging divas (J. Binoche, J. Moore). Two films, Michel Hazanavicius’ THE SEARCH and Andrey Zvyagintsev’s LEVIATHAN in which Russia, or the Russian government, is taken to task for crimes against humanity: the Chechen war in the new film from the artist of the THE ARTIST, the silent and unceasing war against its own people in the new film from the maker of THE RETURN.
And a third pair of mirror twins? The best film in the Directors Fortnight, the Cannes counter-competition, was surely NEXT TO HER, which uncannily mimicked MOMMY: a household a trois anarchised by its one ‘disabled’ member. Where MOMMY had an ADHD teenager, the Israeli drama, directed by Asaf Korman from a script by his wife and leading actress Liron Ben Shlush, recounts the love-hate turmoils of two living-together sisters. Gaby is burdened with cerebral palsy. Chelli is burdened with her care. When Chelli’s new lover moves in, the crises multiply: from territorial demands on the bed – which the girls used to share – to a pregnancy-testing kit suddenly turning blue. And the pregnancy isn’t Chelli’s. It’s a funny, touching, painful, engaging movie.
The Directors Fortnight isn’t all about new directors. It also pitched at us QUEEN AND COUNTRY from 81-year-old John Boorman. Half a century ago Boorman gave us POINT BLANK and DELIVERANCE, a double-barrelled blast of Outsider’s Americana that hit audiences straight in (never mind ‘between’) the eyes. Filmgoers, or critics, have responded by lauding his work and elevating him to auteurship. The man went on to make EXCALIBUR, THE EMERALD FOREST and HOPE AND GLORY. (We’ll forget ZARDOZ).
Now a career of grace and greatness grows old gratefully. This sequel to the autobiographical HOPE AND GLORY has Boorman’s alter ego (Callum Turner) treading the barrack hut boards. He serves in the 1950s home-front British army, not getting sent (but only just not) to Korea. This is a funny, limpid, humane movie, full of small events made mythic – Boorman’s trademark – from the stealing of a regimental clock to the island setting of the hero’s family home. This is presumably based on that of the Boormans. You have to ring a bell from the other side of the River Thames, then you get boated across by any family member available. You could call it “Charon in the community.”
The audience cheered QUEEN AND COUNTRY. It cheered a lot at Cannes, in accordance with the famous prophecy by Nostradamus: “When two or three thousand are gathered under the sign of the little cross on the coast of blue” – thought to refer to the ‘Croisette’ and the ‘Cote d’Azur’ – “madness will reign and rapture will be shown towards the deserving.”
We had everyone here. Sophia Loren, Nicole Kidman, Ryan Gosling, Tommy Lee Jones, Sharon Stone, Uncle Thierry Fremaux, Gilles Jacob – the former Cannes president soon to retire but this year still gracing the Palais steps – and of course the tanks-for-the-memory platoon. Arnie danced with Sly in the Carlton Hotel, old sparring stars turned into a Rogers-Astaire de nos jours. Gerard (Depardieu) danced with Abel (Ferrara) on the movie theatre stage before introducing “the DSK movie”, otherwise known as WELCOME TO NEW YORK, otherwise known as ‘Gerard Gets His Kit Off In An Orgiastic Salute To Dominique Strauss-Khan.’ Followed by a Strauss-Khan lawsuit: keep watching this space.
All good parties come to an end. 2014 proved again that the Cannes do is a can-do event. It empowers movies we would never encounter without it. It inters those we would never wish to encounter again. And it allows early adjudication on movies we would unavoidably have encountered. We get first dibs: Are the films good or bad, ugly or beautiful, destined classics or definite clinkers?
The Cannes Film Festival also lets a jury, led this year by Jane Campion, hand out leafy trinkets that don’t look much like palm fronds but are still the highest form of arboreal anointing since the Roman laurel.
When the Palme d’Or for Best Film was handed, on the last night, to Nuri Bilge Ceylan for WINTER SLEEP the cheers could be heard in Nice, where the population redoubled them: Nice work if you can get it. This may also be the first time a winner was ever announced, anywhere, with the words “And the award goes to Bilge….”
The runner-up Grand Jury Prize was won by Italy’s LE MERAVIGLIE (THE MARVELS). Filmmaker Alice Rohrwacher, a woman, writes and directs a woman-photographed-and-woman-designed (Helene Louvart, Emita Frigato) tale of four women (mother, three daughters) in a rural beekeeping family. Is it possible – since most critics passed by this slender, whimsical specimen of magical realism – that jury chief Campion loved its omnibus feminism and decided to steer it, through competing traffic, towards the awards? We’ll never know.
No one questioned the acting prizes. They were applauded not only in Nice. When Timothy Spall (MR TURNER) and Julianne Moore (MAPS TO THE STARS) were announced as Best Actor and Best Actress, national holidays were set aside in Britain and Beverly Hills.
The latter city-state, as you know, is twinned with Cannes. You can see the sign at the Cannes city limits. Accordingly, maps to the stars, if you buy them in any self-respecting shop or cosmos, indicate the route by high-speed wormhole between the two wonder cities of cinematic glitz and glam.
With Bennett Miller joining Ms Moore on the prize dais – named Best Director for FOXCATCHER – this proclaimed itself another good year for Hollywood at Cannes; and for the French festival itself, a further stage of progress in that long-lasting entente that has brought more American money into Gallic offers than anything since the Louisiana purchase.
Yes. From Baton Rouge to the tapis rouge. It’s a large leap for a man; a small step for intercultural evolution and the continent-vaulting spirit of world cinema. (Catchy line. Look for the T-shirt).
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
WITH THANKS TO THE AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE FOR THEIR CONTINUING INTEREST IN WORLD CINEMA.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved